Making a Splash

Three decades of the late Lilly Pulitzer’s clothes and patterns make a bold debut at the Palos Verdes Art Center this summer.

SPLATTERED. That one word links minds as diverse as Jackson Pollock, Hermann Rorschach and Lilly Pulitzer. Pollock’s paint-splattered canvases shocked the 1950s art world as much as Rorschach’s inkblots revolutionized psychoanalysis in the 20th century. 

However, neither would have imagined that a barefoot heiress in Palm Beach could achieve national renown and phenomenal commercial success over something so simple as a splattered A-line dress. Welcome to the wonderful world of Lilly Pulitzer. 

Born into the socially elite East Coast world, Lillian Lee McKim attended the prestigious Miss Porter’s School with Jacqueline Bouvier, who became a life-long friend. Lilly married literary publishing heir Peter Pulitzer in Palm Beach, while Jackie Kennedy Onassis went on to become one of the most famous women in the 20th century. Throughout their adult lives, both women wore the timeless uniform created by Lilly.

As a young mother of three children living year-round in the sweltering summer heat of Palm Beach, Lilly longed for something to do besides lunch with the ladies at the club. When she constantly ruined her dresses juicing oranges from Peter’s groves, she decided to create fabrics that would mask her messiness. In that simple act, one of the most eponymous fashion lines was born: Lilly Pulitzer. 

The most comprehensive collection of vintage Lilly Pulitzer clothes debuts in the kaleidoscopic exhibit “Loving Lilly” at the Palos Verdes Art Association. Men’s, women’s and children’s clothing create a riot of color and pattern in one of the new galleries of the recently remodeled facility.  

Miami collector Keni Valenti has spent 30 years amassing famous couture collections. With the precision and skill of any investment-level collector, Keni sought to assemble only the best pieces of Lilly Pulitzer clothing.  

"When she constantly ruined her dresses juicing oranges from Peter’s groves, she decided to create fabrics that would mask her messiness. In that simple act, one of the most eponymous fashion lines was born: Lilly Pulitzer.”

One-of-a-kind dresses from Lilly’s personal wardrobe are included in this groundbreaking exhibit, including the amazing beaded headdress and dress she wore to her son’s 10th birthday party. Keni’s extraordinary collection of more than 150 pieces spans decades and categories.  

“It’s a dead-on, recognizable uniform that conveyed that the person wearing it had arrived and attained a certain economic status,” says curator Jeff McKay, who has worked on pre-vious exhibits with Palos Verdes Art Center executive director Joe Baker. 

“It’s always a great creative collaboration working with Jeff, and this is an important exhibit of a national caliber—so it’s a terrific opportunity for the PV Art Association,” says Joe. 

Keni planned to open his new Miami gallery with the “Loving Lilly” exhibit on April 13. Sadly, Lilly Pulitzer died on April 7. However, Keni decided to proceed with the opening as a tribute to the great designer. “Over 1,000 attended the opening night gala, and the attention for Lilly has never stopped,” he says. 

It was exactly Lilly’s own joie de vivre and social status combined with the simple shift dress that catapulted her to success. Lined in white cotton, Lilly’s dresses were opaque, and Lilly was known for not wearing undergarments in the hot Florida summers. “She was the original burn-the-bra girl,” says Keni.  

From a fashion standpoint, “Lilly broke the traditional role of women’s clothing from the belted full shirtdress of the 1950s and made a woman comfortable,” finishes Jeff. Lilly empowered women with the idea that clothes could be comfortable, fashionable and fun. 

In addition to the gallery exhibit, there will be a Loving Lilly Luncheon on September 21 at the new Palos Verdes Art Center. Also, Bella Beach in Manhattan Beach represents Lilly Pulitzer clothes for women and children and will be honoring a discount to all luncheon attendees prior to the event.

“Loving Lilly” opens August 9 and runs through September 29. 
For more, visit pvartcenter.org.

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